A UF-Quality Education Right Here at Home

by Rob Gilbert

In part because of the access the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (UF/IFAS CALS) offers to a world-class education, Jessica Switzer of Lutz is working toward her second career and her third UF degree. 

Jessica Switzer

Switzer’s degrees have been earned through different pathways to UF: transferring into a bachelor’s program with her associate’s degree, completing her master’s online while working full-time, and commuting to Gainesville for her doctoral classes.

Switzer’s path to becoming a triple Gator wouldn’t be possible without the opportunity to learn and to teach in Plant City. UF/IFAS CALS in Plant City (a branch of the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC)) operates on the promise of “Same education. Different location.”

Switzer entered what she calls her “dream school” as a transfer student to UF/IFAS CALS in Plant City in spring 2015. She couldn’t wait to become an agriculture teacher, so she piled on extra classes and worked so hard that a year later she had her first CALS degree, a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education and communication (AEC).

A few months later, she was in the classroom as an agriculture teacher at Steinbrenner High School in northern Hillsborough County. Her work there helped the program earn local, state and even national distinction. She wanted to keep learning but needed flexibility.  As a teacher, between grading, tending to animal births, and traveling with her students to competitions, the only way to continue her own education was online, during nights and weekends. 

As a master’s student, she developed a how-to guide on a national FFA recognition program to help other local FFA chapters and advisers achieve success. The project helped her earn her master’s degree in 2023.

These experiences made it apparent to Switzer that she could have greater impact by preparing others to educate Florida K-12 agriculture students than she could by focusing on a single classroom herself. AEC in Plant City faculty member Debra Barry guided her to pursue a Ph.D.

Her new goal? Become a university faculty member—based in Plant City.

Switzer is among the few who have been a student at both Plant City and now Gainesville, commuting to the main campus for some of her Ph.D. coursework. She’s on pace to graduate in 2026. 

Switzer is already helping prepare future teachers to work in Hillsborough, Polk, and beyond. She has also visited local high schools with academic advisor Jason Steward to educate students about opportunities at UF/IFAS CALS in both Gainesville and Plant City.

To Switzer, it’s an opportunity to support university students, elicit change and help agricultural education in Florida to thrive. I was fortunate to meet her during a recent visit to Plant City. And while I can’t guarantee her a faculty position, I can see that she is already achieving all of the above.

There’s a select group of majors available in Plant City. If you’re interested in earning a bachelor’s degree at Plant City from UF/IFAS CALS, the AEC program has specializations in both agricultural education and communication and leadership development. Reach out to Jason Steward at jsteward@ufl.edu for more information. 

You don’t need to get three degrees to develop a career in Florida agriculture. But if you want a UF-quality education without going to Gainesville, you have options right here at home. 

Rob Gilbert is the University of Florida’s interim senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

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